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Planets are common. Is life?

Now 5000 exoplanets around other stars have been found, what does that tell us about the probability of life?

Our Child of the Stars assumes that another intelligent, social, technological species lives close enough that they can reach us with their faster than light drive. This is a common assumption in science fiction (which doesn’t mean the people who write it all think it could be true.)

Once we know two intelligent species exist, quite close together as galactic distance goes, the odds rise that there are plenty of others.  That raises Fermi’s famous paradox – if life is common, and technological civilisations arise, and the universe is very old, where are the older species of aliens?  Shouldn’t they already be here?  

In essence there are probably six questions

  1. Does life arise anywhere the conditions are right?
  2. How common are those right conditions and how long do they last?
  3. How often does complex life arise where the conditions remain right long enough?
  4. Will complexity given time always bring intelligent, social creatures?
  5. How often do intelligent, social creatures develop a technological civilisation?
  6. Do technological civilisations last long enough to spread between the stars – and do they want to?

Where are we on the hunt for alien life?

We have noticed no alien transmissions, but we have not searched enough of the sky, on enough frequencies, for long enough, to give up yet. Some things we need to know, we are still largely in the dark. A few we have learned a lot in the last few decades.

Thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope and some other searches, we can now be very confident the galaxy is packed with planets, and many will be in the right temperature zone, and in the right spread of sizes.

Life evolved only a few hundred million years after the Earth got cool enough to allow it. But unless a planet is within a stable range of temperatures, over a very long time, favourable conditions will end. It takes many millions of years to get from say bacteria to me.

That means, a stable orbit, and a stable star to orbit, is crucial for temperatures to remain in the right ballpark for long enough.

Astronomer Professor David Kipping says our solar system is unusual. To start with only a tenth of stars are like the sun – relatively stable output for a long time. Then, our system is tidy – one sun, and all the planets are in almost circular orbits.

Systems with multiple suns – the majority – usually won’t have planets in stable orbits. The twin suns of Tattoine? Probably not.

Jupiter’s role

Kipping argues massive planets like Jupiter are key. Current theories see Jupiter’s gravity playing a key role in developing the solar system.  Big Jupiter-like planets are common and easy to detect by radio astronomy. However, most Jupiters seem to have an eccentric orbit, swinging closer to and further away from the star.  Over time an eccentric Jupiter would pull other planets in all sorts of ways – a complex and changing set of orbits for smaller planets, including the possibility of being kicked out of the system altogether. In these solar systems, life might evolve but get shut down when its orbit changes, becoming too hot or cold.  Systems with a Jupiter close to the star tend not to have other planets near the star. Systems without any Jupiter at all could be unstable without a big gravity shepherd.

Kipping proposes we treat ‘having a Jupiter in a fairly circular orbit’ as a good way of picking solar systems that might be ‘like ours’. He thinks only one in a hundred suns like ours could have a stable earth and many of these there might be no big enough planet in the temperate zone.

There are many things which could prevent suitable planets remaining suitable. There are disasters affecting many systems at once (supernova/gamma bursts/wandering stars busting open the system, etc). A planet needs to be big enough to hold onto its atmosphere.

Nevertheless a small fraction of an enormous number is still a very big number.

A planet might have abundant life, even be intelligent, and never go spacefaring. For example, inhabitants of a world entirely covered in ocean would struggle to develop chemistry or use metals.

Life could easily be so rare, we might be alone in the Galaxy. But there is still a lot we don’t know and may not know until we run into another habitable planet.

If faster than light travel is impossible, spreading from star to star will take a lot of effort. Many cultures might not want to do so or need to. (But can we assume no culture would try?)

The real takeout is that the Earth, which we seem hell bent on destroying as a habitat, is probably rare.  Nowhere in the solar system is as favourable for us as say, the coast of Antarctica, or the Sahara desert. We need to treat our biosphere as if it is the only one we have, and possibly, the only one we will touch for a thousand years, or a million.  If Earth was hit by an asteroid, it would still be a better place to live than anywhere else we know.

In 12,000 years since we developed settled farming, we’ve got to a point of self-destruction.  There may be a simple and nasty explanation for the radio silence.  Maybe developing a technical civilisation is toxic.

Our Child of Two Worlds talks about that too.

(You may say what about life that is a wildly different chemistry and lives in the corona of stars or orbitting black holes. We don’t know how that would work or if we would recognise it if we found it.)

US Canada and worldwide availability of my novels

Our Child of Two Worlds is published in the UK (etc) in eBook, Audio and hardback 31 March 2022.

US and Canada confirmed eBook also out 31 March and hardback 14 June.

Our Child of the Stars and Our Child of Two Worlds are currently only available in English -the latter out 31 March 2022. (Translation rights enquiries welcome.)

‘Available in the UK’ also means both will be available in English in other countries worldwide. Ir was certainly on sale in Australia and New Zealand and popped up in Europe and Africa too.

Film rights also available and enquiries welcome

Chat about Cory March 1st 730pm GMT

Topic: Our Child of Two Worlds Discussion+Publicity

Tuesday 1st March 7.30pm for an hour (or we can run over those who want)
Have a friendly talk about the book, hear me read, Q+A about books writing publishing, and a chat about 3 or 4 simple, painless, and largely free ways to help me get the book out there.

You may not know what is helpful, and indeed, things people do that don’t help.

It’s things like buy the book (the **only** idea that costs anything!) and tell your friends you liked it.

Nice if you can, fine if you cannot. Come anyway, no pressure.

Message me for Zoom link and password.

Ten easy ways to help an author

Here are some things which really help – obviously only if comfortable. Do one, do ten, as you want!

Please pre-order the book, because no bookshop stocks everything. Seriously, if you go browsing for it, you could miss it.

Please tell your friends, word of mouth is still important

Please share your thoughts with other people on social media – I am on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and tag me if you like

Obviously sharing my social media too would be lovely!

Please consider reviewing it on Amazon, Goodreads, Waterstones.com, and anywhere else which seems appropriate.  Reviews don’t have to be essays, just a few sentences will do. Amazon will not take a review until publication day. Review it as soon as you can.

With reviewing, it is good form/expected to say if you were given a free copy but say that this did not affect your review. You 100% don’t have to declare that you know me. It’s not local authority procurement.

Please ask your local library to stock it. I get a few pence on each loan and it gets the book into the hands of people who might not otherwise see it

I think this book and its predecessor are great Book Club Books – bound to create discussions

Yes, suggest to your local bookseller if they will stock it. Don’t worry if they haven’t seen it or don’t remember – no one can remember everything. Be polite, try to choose a time when they are less busy, and give them this written handout. Don’t hassle them, give them the facts and let them make their own judgement.

More specialist advice

On Goodreads, mark to read. Like reviews which chime with your thoughts. ‘Shelf it’ where you think it lives.

Preorders signal interest to the trade.

Here are three things that don’t help. Please don’t:

Complain to me it is not in a particular shop. There is literally nothing I can usefully do about it.

Tag me in or show me poor reviews as I will probably have seen it. It’s not wise for an author to respond to a poor review.  I shrug them off – people’s tastes differ. The best solution for a bad review is a better one.

Be grumpy with booksellers, or other people online. Not that you lovely people would do that.

Book Tag – Science Fiction Invaders

This book tag was penned by blogger K J Mulder of www.worldsinink.blogspot.com who is currently running a Science Fiction Invaders book challenge.

Q1 – Blast Off!

Which Book Got You Interested In Or Hooked on Science Fiction?

I was hooked into fantasy by some true classics like Earthsea, the Hobbit, etc.

Science fiction was different. I think the ur-book was Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which has a great sense of wonder and narrative drive, and before you read the series, note that this are massively dated with all the -isms and otherwise awful to my adult tastes. Burroughs also writes without the slightest interest in consistency, or sound worldbuilding. I tore through these. The children’s library had Heinlein and Norton ‘juveniles’ and Hugh Walters who is very obscure now, and some good anthologies and that was it.  On screen, Dr Who and Star Trek were pretty influential.  I liked that the Doctor didn’t always try to blow people up. A good memory of finding the entire collected short stories of H G Wells in the school library and lunchtime by lunchtime I read the lot in order.

Q2 – Engage Targeting Systems!

What type of science fiction that you enjoy the most? Any specific tropes or sub-genre that makes something a must read?

Strong characters and relationships, and something which is about people and their problems without being preachy. Ideas well used. Also, if it’s in the future or on another planet, it needs to use that. Stories which could be Berkshire, now, don’t impress.

Q3 – Prime Your Weapons Systems

What’s Your Favourite Science Fiction book series?

I guess Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish sequence, because I really rate some of the books and stories in it. I often find series weary as they go on. As a series Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun is incredibly strong and memorable, and imaginative, and cruel. I should finish the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafator and the Becky Chambers books.

Q4 – Disengage Safeties

What would you like to see more of in the genre?

Compassion, empathy, joy, humour. Daring to be hopeful.           

Q5 – Weapons Free

What is your favourite adaptation of a science fiction work?

I sneak in the film the Shape of Water (because it’s an adaption of The Creature from the Black Lagoon). Poetic, romantic, about love and loyalty and difference and outsiders finding a place. The grimness of prejudice, xenophobia, and war.  Set in the past but clearly not about the past. All of these ring real bells.

Q6 – Torpedoes Away

Share an unpopular opinion which other sci-fi fans might judge you for

I’m with Wells that imaginative stories don’t have to be (i) rigorous attempts to extrapolate the future or (ii) strictly bound by our current understanding of science. Stories which meet those stern laws aren’t morally better than those which don’t. Genre boundaries are inevitably fuzzy. Non-SF fans can write good books with science fiction ideas, although they can also write terrible books which they claim are wildly original and far too well written to be SF…

It would be great if there was a version of the Snap where certain film and TV franchises faded from front of mind for a while.

Judge away.

Q7 – Victory

What’s the one science fiction book you always recommend to someone? Why?

Both of mine. But that’s only to start a conversation about what they’ve read I might like.  Not because I am needy at all. And both the Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. And depending on their interests.

Names I might throw out Becky Chambers, Arkardy Martin, Aliette de Bodard, Iain Banks, Nnedi Okorafator, Zen Cho, Silvia Morena-Garcia… Each of them in their own way is showing a future very different from futures of the past.

Books, Girl with All the Gifts, Redshirts, and in non-fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Order signed copies

There will be signings in Haringey and Enfield around launchtime.

Fabled bookbox gurus Tea Leaves and Reads loved the first one. They have made Our Child of the Stars their April Book of the Month in hardback. They plan to make Our Child of Two Worlds a later Book of the Month. Both will be signed.

All Good Bookshop, Turnpike Lane, London (Cooperative bookshop, community hub, meeting place for groups, and supporter of my writing group.) You can ask for it to be signed, or dedicated, on the web order.

12 weeks to go – Our Child of Two Worlds

Our Child of Two Worlds completes the story begun in my much-praised debut, Our Child of the Stars.  It will be published in the UK on Thursday 31 March 2022, in hardback, eBook and audiobook.  Please preorder it to avoid disappointment.

I am going to be busy promoting the book and talking about various aspects of it.

No spoilers here

Small-town USA, entering the Seventies. A childless couple Gene and Molly adopt a strange, wounded child of the stars they call Cory.  Molly is the main narrative voice – a passionate nurse fighting for her own extraordinary child. Cory is gentle, vibrant, excitable, endlessly curious and loving – and come from yet his otherworldly origins. bring both joy and danger

In Our Child of Two Worlds a figure from the past brings uncomfortable truths and Gene and Molly face the terrifying loss of everything they took for granted. A divided Earth is under threat – humanity needs Cory’s people to return to save the Earth – but if his people take him back, it will break Molly’s heart.

My writing offers hope, optimism, and a taste of humour, but still facing up to the dark and difficult side of life. I think books can create worlds a bit different from ours, and still be truthful, providing the characters feel real. It was fantastic how well the books landed with readers of all genres. I hope I make people think, but it’s always a good story, not a sermon.

It’s not about the pandemic, at least not directly.

Here’s a few thoughts to whet your appetite.

The stakes are higher than before – for the characters and the Earth. Gene, Molly, Cory and baby Fleur face hatred, danger, and separation. I liked my agent’s summary of the first book

…a big Hollywood canvas and an intense family focus, emotionally devastating, funny and charming all at once’

So to reassure you, the big picture stuff is seen through the family’s eyes.

I bring in three memorable new characters I’m very proud of to make life even more complicated.

It’s an end of the world novel in several respects. It was an era with a real threat of nuclear war and a growing understanding of how humanity could destroy the environment.

Add to that, there are malign forces in space which could destroy a squabbling Earth. At that time the superpowers were edging towards more normal relations – the President whose career was built on fighting communism is about to visit China. Is there enough sense of common humanity (or love for nature) to unite?

As ever, it asks what we owe each other in this life. As ever, how people disagree makes the world what it is.

Please spread the word

How long is long enough?

The Art of Mending with Gold

Above Pop, the burning bowl of the cloudless sky, in every direction parched earth and dusty trees, and rocks striped with colour long before there were men.  The old man looked at the empty road, from the empty diner, believing he was alone.

The Hidden Words is an arts project to show short pieces of writing at the Blue House Yard, Station Rd, Haringey.  The opening of my story “The Art of Mending with Gold” is one of the pieces chosen. It is one of my favourites – I love the short story form, which allows free reign on themes and ideas, and imposes its own specific disciplines.

How long should a story be? Specifically, what makes something a short story and what makes it a novel?

A good short story gets into the situation, does its work, and gets out again.  It has more in common with songs and poems (of typical length) than novels do.  And very long stories told in poetry have more in common with novels.  Some short stories work at 1000 words, and some at 5000.

“The Art of Mending with Gold” is 1700 words.  A stranger comes to an isolated diner in the US desert west, with extraordinary consequences. The story has a beginning, a development, an end. It has three characters, and the action is concluded in one day.

The first answer to how long is intuitive. If everything seems to work, why make it longer?

Pop and Fernanda, and the stranger, are real people, and one could write their lives up to the point of the story. But I feel we know enough about them to understand what happens that day and to care.

The story ends how it does because (in my view) we don’t need to see anything more to understand emotionally what has happened, and we have space to imagine the wonder of how things are now and how tey will be.  Any more explanation feels unnecessary, assuming it is even possible.

Of course, everyone’s reaction can be different.

My novel Our Child of the Stars started as a short story, which showed the family preparing for Halloween, and then their peace is disrupted.  The conclusion showed the dilemma of their life together.

The short answer as to why it became a novel was that so much remained to be told. I wanted to show the sadness in Molly and Gene’s marriage, how Cory came, and why they were so convinced that they had to keep him a secret.  The short story showed a crisis unresolved. Was that day or something else going to bring more danger?

Showing that meant starting earlier – either to when Cory came, or as I decided, even earlier to show both joy and disaster in their marriage. Then, after that Halloween, if more danger comes, how do they prepare, what do they do? Where does it end? A novel is an exercise in obsession, thinking beyond what you need to write, understanding your characters in depth.

Once I knew Cory could not fit into one novel, it was soon apparent that it needed to be two. The first one works as a single book but left big questions unanswered. Readers would tolerate one key question gets some answer by the end of the second book. That’s where Our Child of Two Worlds comes from.

Sometimes a story could be longer and you still don’t.  You may love a short story with novel potential, and choose not to grow it into a novel. I have an 11000 word story where someone discovers the truth about their horrible society.  The elite will clearly not give up power without a struggle and there would be love, honour, struggle, sacrifice and perhaps redemption. My protagonist would be a player within that struggle. No shortage of material.  Yet I had said what I wanted to say, what interested me was in the story already.

As ever comments below! Or drop me a line.

Our Child of Two Worlds Finished (creatively)

Our hero cheerily finishes a book – anxieties of the second book – September and new starts – a new work in progress***

So!  Yesterday I edited a sentence – not a great sentence of itself, a brisk conveyer of information. Not important like the first sentence or the last.  It was the last outstanding sentence to edit of Our Child of Two Worlds. The long awaited sequel to Our Child of the Stars and the conclusion of the duology.

We are now at the proof stage. There’s a lovely jolt coming soon – and I am looking forward to it – because when proofs come it is laid out as a book.

On current plans, publication is six months away.  I am proud and excited, and frustrated that it will be some months before you have a change to read it.  Of course, I’m a bit nervous too.  Any writer is nervous what the readers might think – but those who have read drafts seem suitably bewitched.

I know nothing I could write can interest you as much as a copy of the book to read!

I promised newsletter subscribers

-a free Cory short story which is the wonderful opening of the first draft of Our Child of Two Worlds.  It’s perfect but the book now starts in a different place

-a chance to talk about helping/being involved in the launch

-and the opening of the conversation about whether we should write about the pandemic. 

Publishing is generally dissuading writers unless they have front line experience.  The 1918 flu was as deadly as the war and was largely ignored by literature.  For me, I think all human life was there, but its not the idea most obsessing me at present.

*** The work in progress is Victorian and it is affecting me

Do subscribe to my newsletter, ask questions via the contact form, and if you want to help with the launch get in touch.